Playing it safe: ‘that’s part of what it means to be in the music industry’

Last month, SoulCulture grabbed some time with Musiq Soulchild to discuss his latest album, Luvanmusiq; a collection of songs touching on mature experiences of life and love, which covers topics of self-improvement and struggles with emotional vulnerability in relationships, whilst the lead single ‘Buddy’ tackles a need for honest role-definitions. In our interview, he had some interesting thing to say about the nature of relationships, stereotypes inflicted on soul artists, being homeless, and answers back to those who accuse him of playing it safe. Brace yourselves, it’s a long one!
SoulCulture: Firstly, let’s clear up some small confusion. First you were Musiq Soulchild, then you were just Musiq, and now both parts of your name are back on the CD labels. What was that all about?
Musiq Soulchild: I never actually dropped the Soulchild… Musiq Soulchild is a two-part thing, it’s like John Smith. It’s just that I was just using Musiq at the moment, and personally I didn’t think that it was such a big deal. It was an attempt to express purpose behind the two names, but I never actually dropped the Soulchild, I just put more attention on one. I was gonna switch gears once I felt I’d articulated a point behind Musiq, but at the end of the day it confused people and backfired. Plus, I’m reintroducing myself so I thought it was a good time to just come back with the full name as it is and let people know that it is in fact the name.
SoulCulture: I see… Why did you leave Def Soul Records?
Musiq: I left Def Jam Def Soul Records because Kevin Lyle, who was the president of Def Jam at the time who was responsible for signing me, moved over to the Warner Music Group which is the parent company of Atlantic Records, and working on this album Luvanmusiq I met him in passing and he asked me, basically, how would I feel about him being immediately involved in my career as he was when I was over at Def Jam. It sounded good to me; he made it happen.
SoulCulture: Are you confident Atlantic will do a good job of promoting you? It seems to be going well, with your album in the number one spot.
Musiq: Yeah. They’re doing a good job so far so good.
SoulCulture: Let’s talk about your life before you were comfortably housed on a major label. You were homeless for a while?
Musiq: Oh yeah, I left my mum’s house at 17 and had to depend on the kindness of friends and sometimes strangers, most of all myself for a while.
SoulCulture: How long were you homeless for?
Musiq: ‘Til I got my first recording contract which was in 2000, so… I was twenty…three? Something like that. I was bouncing from house to house, living with people, doing whatever I could to survive basically.
SoulCulture: How did being homeless affect your journey to getting a recording contract?
Musiq: I guess tremendously. I never really wanted to be a, you know, ‘music industry standard official recording artist’. But I knew I wanted to have a career in music in one way or another, it just seemed logical that if you wanna have a career in music why not being in the music industry, like if you wanna have a career in basketball why not find your way into the NBA. Then again, there are alternatives. It’s just that the music industry was a designated ideal place to have a career in music. At least that’s what I thought at the time, and I still do in a lot of ways, but creatively I feel otherwise for a lot of reasons. Coming from where I came from, I had to fend for myself and all of that, it really contributed to a particular perspective on things so when I got into the business I knew a lot about what it was like to not have, so when I did get it was pretty interesting on making that adjustment.
SoulCulture: So if you weren’t on a major label now and you didn’t have this recording contract, what would you be doing?
Musiq: Hopefully by now I would be successful, but basically being successful off of, you know, working a job and spending my money on studio time and doing music on my own terms, and creating a grass roots reputation and really being out there working. Which I can pretty much still do, it’ s just that being a part of a record label just gets you there quicker.
SoulCulture: Do you have any regrets?
Musiq: No I don’t have any regrets, simply because I’ve learned a lot by being on a major label and being the type of artist that I was at heart and mind and seeing how things are on this side of things. I think it helps because hopefully I’ll be in a position where I can help other artists who are like I was – not really wanting to be a part of a major label or wanting to do it independent style, maybe I can help bring certain things and certain perspectives to their attention that they probably won’t be thinking about because they have their own fixed perspective on things. I can be that much more realistic by having the vision and having the particular perspective that I have, which is like a little bit of both worlds.
SoulCulture: Do you feel there’s a difference between the artist you are inside and the artist you are within the industry?
Musiq: Yeah there is a huge difference, and I’m doing my best to fill in the space or at least bring the artist that I am more closer to the artist that I’m being represented as. Now I don’t mean to imply that I don’t like the artist that I’m being represented as, I’m proud of the artist that I’m being represented as, but it’s just that there’s so much more there and hopefully I’ll be able to express all of those other aspects. My artistry and creativity.
SoulCulture: What do you say to those who criticise you for playing it safe with your music?
Musiq: Well, that’s part of what it means to be in the music industry, you have to be safe, because you got a lot of people that’s investing a lot of money into what you’re doing and they’re not really willing to take chances if they’re not sure of the success. So, one of the best ways of guaranteeing (if you can guarantee) that you’ll make your money back is if you do play it safe. Critics are gonna be critics regardless of what you do.
SoulCulture: So, do you plan to take more risks in the future with your music?
Musiq: Yeah but to take risks you’ve gotta have leverage to take risks. In this business it’s kinda challenging to gain leverage because it’s consistently changing, peoples attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter. So, to take risks sometimes you’re looked at as being crazy or weird for doing what you’re doing, when you may be thinking you’re just being creative. There’s a certain perception of how an artist should conduct themselves artistically, especially when you’re doing a certain type of music. There’s a whole lot of people that are not willing to accept me being anything else other than neo soul, when there’s so much more to music than just neo soul.
SoulCulture: Do you think that soul is a limiting label at the moment?
Musiq: No, I think the idea of what people say soul music is, is a little distorted than what it actually is. My thing is that soul music is just simply that – soul music – a person expressing their soul through music. Now there are time-honoured traditions and standards that have been cultivated through the years of what people would like to call soul music, but that’s just what soul music is. Every genre you can think of spawned from the idea of what soul music is – jazz, rock’n’roll, blues, heavy metal, death metal, punk, rock – it doesn’t matter, it was somebody having a need to express themselves through music – which is ultimately the idea of what soul music is. The type of soul music that I’m contributing to has a lot of attachments, you know, and people have the impression that so long that you are entertaining these attachments then you’re doing it right. But there’s so much more to creativity, so much more to music, than just these attachments. And just because you don’t honour these attachments then you’re not doing.. you know, it’s like people see me doing things that they may consider not-neo-soul, but I’ve never considered myself neo soul. This is what you call what I do, I’ve always told you that I make soul music and that is a very wide ranged idea – because anything can be soul music.
SoulCulture: When you say ‘attachments’, what do you see them as?
Musiq: Using certain instruments, touching on certain subject matters, dressing a certain way, eating certain foods, being associated with certain people. I just don’t think that’s fair, that’s just another form of stereotyping to me.
SoulCulture: Would you agree that the label ‘Neo’ kind of killed the genre?
Musiq: It took the novelty out of it, it made it a thing to do, a thing to be. In a way, I understand why people chose the [neo soul] label in the way that they did, it identified to themselves what it is, but it kinda cheapened it because it robbed it of the potential of being much more than what people were restricting it to be.
SoulCulture: How would you describe the soul music industry at the moment?
Musiq: I think it’s in a state of transition, a confused state of transition. Simply because you have a lot of people who are not educated on where it comes from. There are a lot of artists that are still around, that have contributed to the legacy and the tradition of music that we call soul music or traditional R&B music, that people could stand to educate themselves on to maybe help them understand what was the purpose of it, so that maybe they can help contribute to it rather than going off on a tangent of what they thought it was and think it is. You got a lot of people in this industry who if I mention a lot of artists that made it possible for them to have a career, they’ll be like “Who? Who’s that?” It’s kind of a shame, but at the same time you can’t really fault a person for what they don’t know. I would just hope that people would take the time out to educate themselves. Even myself; I’m still educating myself on a lot of artists who made it possible for me to have a career, so I don’t mean to imply that I know all there is to know. But at least I’m doing my best to honour those artists, because I would like for people to do the same for me 15-20 years from now – when another artist comes out and they want to call themselves doing soul music or even neo soul music or whatever you wanna call it, that they would find their way to my contribution and hopefully appreciate my contribution to the whole thing.
SoulCulture: On your Luvanmusiq inlay booklet, your shout outs read a lot like my ipod playlist. How did Common’s album ‘Be’ change your life?
Musiq: Well, it changed my life because he took a very bold approach to hip hop. He actually already did it on Electric Circus, but I just think that he was very very creative and just the things that he was talking about, it had a lot to do with contributing to the betterment of humanity, contributing to the betterment of yourself, really honouring and preserving your well rounded self and sense of being. And not a lot of MCs are talking about that. You know. He’s talking about things that you can talk about in your personal life but it’s just not cool to talk about on a record because everybody else is chasing what everybody else is doing. Not to discredit what everybody else is doing, God bless ‘em, everybody has a right to express themselves however they choose. However, there’s so much more to life than those things. So for him to take that approach, by him being successful, by him having a reputation, and by him having such a huge effect on people by him taking that approach I think it was bold and admirable and I respect that, especially coming from hip hop.
SoulCulture: I notice on your vocal production credits Ne-yo is there for Ms Philadelphia…
Musiq: Yeah that was a song he actually wrote and produced with a crew of his, and that song was presented to me and I thought it was fresh. I switched some things around to tailor fit it for myself but that’s what that was all about.
SoulCulture: Do you see similarities between your song writing?
Musiq: I think so, because we pretty much are inspired by a lot of the same qualities of music – good songwriting, good vocal production, but he definitely does his in his own way and I do it in my own way.
SoulCulture: The chords remind me of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Overjoyed’.
Musiq: Well that’s actually where the idea came from, but for sampling purposes we couldn’t clear it so we had to re-route it a little bit. That’s politics for you.
SoulCulture: Why did you have no guest features on your album?
Musiq: I didn’t wanna take for granted my position in the industry so I wanted to just reintroduce myself to people, let them know who I am and what I’m about, then hopefully with this album I can use it as a vantage point to do a lot of collaborations where it’s not I’m leaning on the artist, it’s more so we’re working together to contribute to a better situation.
SoulCulture: I’ve heard so many different remixes of ‘Buddy’, featuring the likes of Lupe Fiasco, T.I., Young Buck, Freeway, Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Jadakiss… How did you get them all to jump on it?
Musiq: That was of their own doing, that’s another thing that contributed to my confidence. Particularly MCs are co-signing on what I’m doing, so that really feels good.
SoulCulture: Is it true that you want to MC yourself?
Musiq: Yeah I do but I got a lot of homework to do before I start
SoulCulture: So who are your favourite rappers?
Musiq: Kanye West, Common, Lupe Fiasco, Consequence…
SoulCulture: What do you think pushed your latest album to number one?
Musiq: To be honest, I don’t know, and I’ve never been one to question a blessing. Just accept it.
SoulCulture: I read somewhere that you’re a health freak..?
Musiq: I try my best to be, but sometimes I fall short of that very far. I definitely don’t smoke and drink. I do drink green tea and I do eat sushi.
SoulCulture: What can we expect from you in the future?
Musiq: Hopefully running my own record label helping other artists achieve their goals and dreams in music. Maybe even branching off into other creative trains like fashion and movies. Not so much acting, moreso filmmaker.
SoulCulture: How has your outlook on relationships changed since your first album?
Musiq: It changed a lot, my outlook on relationships changes every day. I’ve been in difference relationships since then; a lot of them short lived but very educational. I’ve learnt a lot about myself more so than anything.
SoulCulture: How many buddies do you have?
Musiq: I have a lot of buddies, I don’t have a specific number. It changes with everybody that I meet. A buddy is not entirely just a sexual thing, it just simply means a person that you’re willing to share your life with for however much time you choose to share your life with that person. Being a buddy it means a lot of things, it doesn’t just mean friends with benefits – it means that also but it doesn’t just mean that. It’s possible to have a buddy that you have no sexual relationship with, it just means somebody that you wanna spend your time with.
A buddy is a relationship. See, that’s the very thing. People take words and they run with them without really identifying what it means. A relationship simply means you have a relationship with the person – you have a relationship with your mother, you have a relationship with your friend, you have a relationship with the people that you meet in the street that you have an extensive rapport with. You are two people relating with each other. There’s a whole idea of a relationship with the implications and attachments that have been put on it, and I think a lot of people get caught up in those things. When you start talking about an exclusive relationship, and I think that’s what’s important, the two people that are in the relationship to identify what it is between each other and agree to what it is, as opposed to one person thinking that it’s one way and the other person is in the dark. I think it’s important that people communicate with each other and I also think it’s important that you don’t come into a new relationship with a whole bunch of expectations because that can ruin the relationship of what it could be because you have all these expectations and you make all these demands and you have all these restrictions, it’s kicking all the fun out of it. You never know what things are gonna be – you might meet a person and you really like them and you’re infatuated by them and you got feelings and things and 3 months later they’re gone. So I think it’s important that a person should take time to really find out who a person is before they start placing claim on things. A buddy is something totally different than thinking about settling down with somebody and planning to spend the rest of your life with this one person, when you’re doing that there’s not a lot of time and space for buddies if any because it’s gonna conflict with you trying to honour this one relationship with this one person.
SoulCulture: Part of the appeal of your song-writing seems to be the simple phrasing you use to express universal and complex situations..
These are things that happen every day, all I’ve come up with is a way to put it in song form. People can do whatever they wanna do and I don’t mean to imply that people have to do these things – I’m not in a position to say that – but I would just hope and pray that people take a more realistic approach in expressing themselves through music because that actually has a lot to do with people’s perception of what relationships are. If there were more people out there being more realistic with how things go down and talk about more realistic things, like the simple fact of you can know somebody and really have a lot of love for somebody but not like them. A lot of people don’t know that there is a difference there. It’s possible to really have genuine compassion and really honestly care about a person but not really agree with their choices in life.
I wish people would take the time to speak on it. You don’t have to get deep on people – and that’s another reason why I make it very simple is to show that you don’t have to get deep and heavy to express a realistic point, you just gotta talk about it.
SoulCulture: Do you think a lot of the ideas expressed in music are shaping the trains of thoughts of entire generations?
Musiq: Definitely. We’re gonna have some pretty interesting oldies! I swear. I’m thinking about one day having kids, and what kind of things I’m gonna be contributing to their upbringing. Again, I don’t mean to discredit anybody and what they’re doing because those are still things that people think about – people think about those booty shaking songs, that is a natural thing, for a man to be attracted to a woman and for a woman to be attracted to a man. And boys to be attracted to girls and girls to be attracted to boys. That is a natural thing. It just comes with the territory of being a human being.
SoulCulture: So do artists have a responsibility..?
Musiq: Whether we like to or not, because even sometimes I don’t want to be responsible but fact is we are so I do my best to honour that. But I think it’s important because we get so much attention and we do have the power to influence a lot of people, however at the end of the day we’re still human and our perceptions are subject to change. So we might feel strongly about one thing one day and might learn something in the process and then the next day we might even contradict ourselves. It all depends on the education of the person and it depends on that person educating themselves and it depends on the people around that person. The idea of collectively, consistently educating each other to be better people in however way that we can, and I do my best to do my part. By inspiring people, by taking the approach that I do. I’m not perfect, I don’t have all the answers and I will never imply that I do. As a matter of fact I will always imply that I don’t know anything. I just know what I know. Hopefully what I know, and expressing what I know, may have a positive effect on people.
The album Luvanmusiq is out now on Atlantic Records.
Visit for more info on the singer.